Robert “Bob” Gore stood amongst giants, but didn’t act like one, say family members mourning the loss of longtime W. L. Gore & Associates president and CEO. Joining him on the list of inductees in the National Inventors Hall of Fame are other American greats like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.
Bob Gore’s most notable invention was GORE-TEX outerwear, a product that has become synonymous with the outdoors. However, through his long career at Gore, first as a chemical engineer undergrad and then to president and CEO and finally, to his position as chairman emeritus, he was awarded nine patents. His middle-of-the night discovery of how to expand PTFE or polytetrafluoroethylene – used in Teflon by DuPont and, later, by his father, Bill Gore, to insulate cables and start the family business – transformed the company into a billion-dollar empire, impacted millions of lives and changed the quality of life in Flagstaff.
As Gore’s younger sister, Ginger Giovale, explains, the story of the birth of GORE-TEX on Oct. 28, 1969, could well have started out as, “It was a dark and stormy night. . .” Gore was awakened by something nagging at his mind. The consummate scientist went to his lab and started heating PTFE, convinced he could gently coax the synthetic polymer into a thinner material that could be used for more products.
“It looked like a six-inch cylinder that Bob heated in a lab oven and would take out with long pinchers,” she said. Each attempt to slowly stretch the material caused it to break. Frustrated, he yanked the piece quickly and it expanded tremendously, by nearly 1,000%.
The introduction of this groundbreaking new material, ePTFE, opened a world of possibilities for products such as GORE-TEX Fabric, the world’s first waterproof, breathable outerwear, and further innovations.
Keeping a Promise
Bob Gore visited Flagstaff Gore plants regularly from his Delaware home to check on innovations and their progress. “He’d want to hear from product specialists,” said retired Gore Associate Thom O’Hara. “He challenged people about their hypotheses and he listened extremely well.”
O’Hara, who worked for Gore for 39 years, said Bob insisted on excellence and integrity. “He’d say, ‘We don’t put any product out there that doesn’t do what it says it will do. If we say it’s going to keep out rain, it keeps out rain. If we say it won’t clot, it won’t clot.’”
In the late ‘70s, Gore learned the first version of GORE-TEX Fabric leaked at the seams. “He talked to associates, verified the problem and ordered all of it to come back – all the GORE-TEX Fabric – because it didn’t meet our standards,” said O’Hara. “This was a huge amount of product and a very expensive recall. He wouldn’t have anything associated with the company that wasn’t excellent.”
Gore’s nephew, Danny Giovale, founder of the mountain climbing footwear traction company Kahtoola, says his uncle had a potent mix of intelligence, focus, scientific knowledge and skill, along with a strong desire to work on things with the potential to make a difference.
“The success of waterproof, breathable GORE-TEX Fabric, for example, is not only tied to his invention of the material itself, but to his continued innovations and leadership that ultimately made the outerwear completely effective. His leadership and determination in fulfilling the promise that became known as ‘Guaranteed to Keep You Dry’ is a powerful example of Bob’s character. He took these things seriously; yet, he had a wonderful engaging smile that showed the joy he experienced. For myself starting my own outdoor business, he definitely inspired me to be sure that we are taking our promises seriously in order to build the trust required for our company to grow for the long term. I think that’s something we can all appreciate.”
Attention to Detail
“Bob Gore was a real genius, that’s for sure,” said Steven Smith, a retired Flagstaff Gore associate of more than 30 years. “He was the smartest person I’ve ever known and could be intimidating, although he didn’t mean to be. He always pushed people to be their best. I learned a lesson from him that would haunt me for decades: Always check the expiration date.”
Straight out of college as a new hire, Smith’s first job was as an audio-visual technician, part of the team responsible for the success of Gore presentations. Smith first met Bob when he came to visit the Flagstaff plants to address the associates. Smith clipped the cordless lavalier microphone to his lapel and proceeded with the mic check. The one-hour presentation went smoothly until the last two minutes. “The mic died. New to Gore, I had to walk out on stage, fidget with the mic, replace the batteries and conduct another mic check so Bob could finish his talk.”
Smith says Gore smiled at him after the presentation and said, “Next time, let’s start with fresh batteries.” Smith had replaced the batteries before the talk, but upon checking the batteries in stock, he discovered they had all long surpassed their expiration date.
“They were new, but they weren’t fresh,” said Smith. “He wasn’t condescending, he was right. From that day on, it didn’t matter how big or small an event, I always checked the expiration date on the batteries. Bob Gore taught me the importance of paying attention to the little things.”
Like Smith, many Gore associates considered Bob Gore a mentor, a man who instilled discipline into the innovation process and contributed to their personal success, as well as the success of the Gore Enterprise. “I am sure I speak for all associates when I say I grew as a leader through Bob’s guidance,” said current Gore CEO Jason Field. “His passion for the quality and performance of our products and his incisive questions and insights shaped not only the culture of our technology efforts but the values at the core of who we are.”
Making Polar History
By delivering on promises and paying attention to detail, Bob Gore is credited with contributing to the success of history-making polar expeditions. When explorer Will Steger led the first dogsled journey to the North Pole without re-supply in 1986, both he and his human and canine team members were sponsored by W. L. Gore & Associates and outfitted in waterproof GORE-TEX Fabric.
“Bob was a very nice, kind person. Back in the ‘80s, before I had completed these big expeditions, Bob put me at ease and allowed me to explain my goals,” said Steger. “He was an all-around great human being and very concerned about the environment.”
Through Bob, Gore became Steger’s first sponsor of the historic international expedition to cross Antarctica in 1989-90, which brought attention to preserving the frozen continent. “Bob gave us the green light. It meant everything to have Gore, not just the name, but the resources and marketing behind us.”
From planning to execution, the expedition was a three-year effort. “It was in the most extreme area of the planet and no one had crossed it,” said Steger. “The GORE-TEX protected us really well from wind and moisture, which is the main culprit of staying warm. The product worked well in our sleeping bags, too. It did the job and proved itself. No one had been in these extreme conditions before, and we were out there for 222 days.”
A Born Entrepreneur
According to Ginger Giovale, her parents, Bill and Vieve Gore, did everything together. “Mom called us to dinner one night and explained that they would like to try to start a business in the basement of our Delaware home. She told us not to worry, ‘If it goes badly, we can handle it.’ Then, Dad said, ‘If it’s successful, it will be successful beyond our wildest imagination.’”
Giovale recalls Bob, the oldest of the five children, having many deep philosophical and business discussions with their dad at the dinner table. “Bob was a very hard-working straight-A student and athlete. And, he had a reputation for making money. If we wanted him to drive us to the movies, he would charge us a quarter each for the ride.”
She says her brother always stayed in shape, was very humble, focused and exacting. As a sophomore in college, he solved an early technical challenge that helped kickstart their parents’ company.
“Bob was in laboratories everywhere, and the scientists and engineers were ready when he came to visit,” said Giovale. “He invented ePTFE, but what people don’t know is that that was just the beginning of developing that whole concept and how to use it. It could filter out the tiniest things and it was truly fireproof, which meant it could be used in firefighter and military jackets. It was very compatible with the human body and animals – that discovery was a big step forward for the medical industry. The products alone have saved so many lives and helped so many people that I don’t know how many people have GORE-TEX in their bodies, well over a million people around the world. You just can’t imagine all the products that were developed under Bob’s leadership.”
“Mostly, Dad thought of himself as an Associate, and wanted to be part of an enterprise that improved the human condition through products such as medical and pollution control devices,” said Bob’s son, Scott Gore.
A Legacy of Innovation and Character
In 1976, Bob Gore succeeded his father as Gore president and CEO, and the company’s technological achievements continued to flourish. From dental floss, to guitar strings, to cables on space missions to live-saving medical devices, Gore’s ePTFE could be found seemingly everywhere.
“Bob Gore appreciated that innovation can arise from many different places if entrepreneurial spirit is encouraged and fostered,” said Field. “Innovation as activity, doing things with your hands, experimenting, testing and observing, was instilled in our enterprise consistently and productively throughout Bob’s tenure as both president and chairman.”
During his long career, he received many honors, including the Society of Plastics Engineers John W. Hyatt Award for benefits to society through the use of plastics and the Perkin Medal for innovation in applied chemistry resulting in commercial development from the Society of Chemical Industry (American Section).
“Bob was not only an outstanding leader of W. L. Gore & Associates, he was a very influential leader of the family,” said Giovale. “He taught each of us complex concepts with simplicity and patience.”
Gore also is known for his philanthropic endeavors and for nurturing the growth of future scientists and engineers. He and his wife, Jane, have contributed significantly to the University of Delaware, where he earned his bachelor’s degree, and the University of Minnesota, where he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in chemical engineering, as well as other institutions.
He encouraged Gore associates to give back to their communities and matched their donations with company contributions. The global company has had an enduring impact on Arizona, as more than 30% of its workforce of an estimated 11,000 people live here. In addition, Gore’s famous culture of a flat lattice structure is credited for its recurring place on Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For.
In 1996, Gore said, “We plan to leave a legacy to society and to future generations: infants with surgically reconstructed hearts that live because of our medical products; governments of free societies that are better able to protect themselves because of defense products; communities with cleaner and healthier environments because of our filtration and sealant products; and yes, people that just have more fun in the outdoors because of our GORE-TEX Outerwear.”
Bob Gore died on Sept. 17, at the age of 83. He is survived by his wife, Jane, and a large family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as four siblings – Susan Gore, Ginger Giovale, David Gore, Betty Snyder – and extended family. QCBN
By Bonnie Stevens, QCBN